By Sandy Sorkin

I have a dilemma and I am not certain of a means to a compromise. I also have an acknowledgment. My wife and I have had numerous pets over the years, some very big dogs and adorable cats. But the pets do what they do. They love you for years and inevitably grow old and die. We’ve always recognized our responsibilities to our animals and have given them all the love and care possible. My dilemma is that I love indoor cats and am scared to death of outdoor cats.

So why is there a dilemma? Montclair has more than one organization that supports the release of neutered cats into the wild. Well, as wild as we can muster in a suburban town. The cats fend for themselves, but there are frequently people who put food out for them. This is the juncture where an uncomfortable reality comes into play. According to the ASPCA, indoor cats often have life spans of 17 years or more, while outdoor cats typically only survive for two to five years. My question is why would we condemn cats to a feral existence deliberately releasing them outdoors on their own to meander through the woods, cross streets, dodge cars, encounter the infrequent coyote, and weather storms? Wouldn’t it be far more humane and caring to insist that we find homes for cats and make certain the owners and adopters know the dangers their cats face when sent outdoors?

Beyond caring for the welfare of cats, there are several other considerations that might be considered before sending the cats outside. There are the life-threatening diseases for anyone who has any immunodeficiency such as HIV. Pregnant women must be concerned with the prospect of birth defects and passing the infection on to their newborns. Even rabies is a concern. Outdoor cats typically harbor a parasite called toxoplasma gondii that is responsible for a disease known as toxoplasmosis. It is estimated that at least 60 million people in the United States already have the parasitic infection, but fortunately a healthy immune system can keep it at bay, and most of us will never have recognizable symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website has more information and advice.

While the disease can be acquired by ingesting the parasite or having it pass through intact skin, the only place the parasite reproduces is in cats. They then shed million of oocysts through their feces. Other animals, such as rodents, become infected and are potentially caught by other cats that then become infected, completing the cycle.

Healthy people who become infected may have no symptoms or mild flu-like symptoms and will probably have no other effects for the rest of their life. Here is where it gets very interesting. The toxo parasite rewires brains. It makes rodents that are instinctively frightened of cats become attracted to them. They become unafraid of cats, go directly to them, and are killed. Now the parasite gets to reproduce in a new cat gut.

Who knows what it might be doing to human brains (remember the 60 million infected people). Scientists are still studying the effects in areas ranging from car wrecks to schizophrenia.

Bringing the discussion back to keeping cats indoors, toxoplasmosis may not be the largest problem. We must not lose sight of the billions of birds and mammals that are gratuitously killed every year by outdoor cats in the Unites States. How many stories have you heard about cats bringing home a mouse or bird and depositing it on an owner’s doorstep?

Does anyone have an idea of how to reconcile plans to release neutered cats in Montclair with the medical concerns of the community? Do we need to care about wildlife in Montclair which are decimated by cats? Will we recognize that feral cats are responsible for extirpating so many species? We need a compromise that recognizes the concerns of the populace with our responsibility to care for our pets.